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Smelly gas release from sewage plant prompts complaints and a pollution citation

on December 8, 2023

Monday evening, Richmond residents noticed a sulfuric stink in the air. It lingered for two days and on Thursday, led to a notice of violation for the company that operates the city’s wastewater treatment plant. 

Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which issued the notice for a public nuisance violation, had recorded hydrogen sulfide levels Tuesday morning as high as 345.8 parts per billion on the south side of the Point Richmond plant, based on a five-minute average. That is six times the BAAQMD’s emissions standard and the largest hydrogen sulfide spike Point Richmond has seen this year.  

“We did get a lot of parent and student complaints because of the smell,” said Jennifer Abarca, secretary at Washington Elementary School in Point Richmond. She was among nearly a dozen people who called BAAQMD’s complaint line to report the odor. 

Exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas can cause eye and respiratory irritation, as well as headache, nausea or vomiting, according to the California Air Resources Board. 

On a chain-link fence, a white sign with blue letters outside an off-white color square building. The sign reads: City of Richmond Water Pollution Control Plant, Veolia water, along with business hours.
Richmond wastewater treatment plant, operated by Veolia. (Julia Haney)

Veolia, the private company contracted by the city to operate the wastewater plant, said in a statement Wednesday that hydrogen sulfide levels went up because of work at the facility to replace a fan and drain a tank —  part of a larger project to improve the plant. 

“Those readings dropped by the following day as Veolia staff worked through Monday night adding chemicals to the emptied basin to arrest the odor producing process and flushing the basin with chlorinated water,” the statement read. 

The Veolia incident came a week after a Chevron refinery flare sent smoke billowing into the sky over Richmond for nearly 12 hours. Days later, BAAQMD issued four violations to Chevron, which are still pending. Of the 1,017 notices of violation that BAAQMD issued to various companies in Richmond this year, 1,065 — around 95 percent — are still pending. . 

Mayor Eduardo Martinez blasted Veolia in a statement Wednesday, saying it owes the community more information. “Now, as with Chevron’s flaring event, we are being denied real answers and real solutions,” he said. 

The company will be providing an update at an emergency City Council meeting Tuesday. 

Richmond residents have grown accustomed to foul odors, said George Brown, who has lived in the city for over 30 years, “The better question is when do we not smell something?” he said. 

Martinez encouraged residents to make their voices heard on Zoom or at the council meeting.

“We will start holding them accountable to our residents and as such they will provide a report detailing the incident, actions they will take to prevent this from happening again and next steps on this project,” Councilmember Cesar Zepeda said in a Facebook post. 

Zepeda represents District 2, where Veolia’s facility is located. He added that representatives from Veolia will return in January or February to present further findings. 

Anderson Dill, the general manager of the local Veolia plant, referred calls to the corporate communications team. Adam Lisberg, senior vice president of communications, responded by reiterating the company’s statement. It said the company would review its processes to make sure the city has “as much notice as possible” of future work that might create odors. 

Lisberg said in a phone call Friday afternoon that he was not aware of the notice of violation. 

Veil of fire and smoke over Richmond from what Chevron says is a flare

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